By Allan Muir
When Hockey Canada came up with the exceptional player status as an option to advance the development of high-end players in the Ontario Hockey League, the thinking was that this sort of athlete might come around once in a decade.
But with today's news that Sean Day had been granted the status, it seems the exceptions are becoming the norm.
Day, a 15-year-old defenseman from Detroit's highly regarded Compuware program, becomes the fourth player to be allowed to enter the OHL a year early, and the third in three years.
Despite the surprising streak, it's clear the bar hasn't been set too low. John Tavares was the first player to earn the distinction in 2005. Four years later, he was the first overall pick in the NHL draft.
Two years ago, it was defenseman Aaron Ekblad. He went first overall in the OHL draft to Barrie, and is expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2014 NHL draft. Connor McDavid earned the exemption last spring. He was Erie's best player this year, and USA Today compared him to LeBron James in terms of his potential to impact his sport.
And now Day, a proud Canadian who has never lived in the country, gets the chance to prove he's up to the challenge of the world's toughest junior circuit.
Phillip McKee, the executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation, thinks the trend reflects as much on the changing demands on young players as on the success of Hockey Canada's development model.
"Young men are maturing a lot quicker," McKee said. "Maybe that we means we might have more exceptional players than we thought, maybe every two or three years instead of every 10."
The process for identifying them, though, won't change. Day's father, Keith, called it "grueling."
"People have said that having someone make it three years in a row cheapens the process," Keith Day said. "It didn't feel like a cheap process to me. Sean went through a four-hour session with a psychologist that I couldn't have handled as well.
"What this 15-year-old has gone through over last two weeks, most adults couldn't handle. He didn't get distracted. He kept his head on straight. I'm more impressed with him as ever, not as a player but as young man."
Of course it's Day's ability on the ice, not his maturity, that has everyone's attention. A mobile defender who was called "the best skater I've seen at his age" by legendary junior coach Brian Kilrea, Day models his game after Paul Coffey.
"I'm an offensive defender," Day said. "I have good vision, I like to pass, I like to shoot at times, I can take control of a game at points. I can play good D, but if you need a fourth forward, I'll jump into the play."
"He's a throwback to firewagon hockey," one veteran OHL scout said. "The way he skates, the way he distributes the puck. He makes everything look easy."
Where Day differs from his three predecessors is that he's likely to be the first exceptional player not to be taken first overall.
The Ottawa 67's hold the pick, and while they've been tight-lipped about their interest, it's believed they have their hearts set on forwards Travis Konecny or Dylan Strome. McDavid's team, the Erie Otters, is also thought to like a forward better with the second-overall selection.
That might diminish the validity of Day's exceptionalism in the eyes of some, but not Day. "I'm excited. I'm prepared to go anywhere," he said. "The point of getting this was to play in the OHL, not go to a certain spot." Day will find out where that will be on Apr. 6. And then he'll have four years to prove just how exceptional he is.